A witty, readable and unusual account of the world’s most maligned and misunderstood insect: the wasp
… and books that told me everything about
the wasp, except why.
— Dylan Thomas (1952)
Summer is the time of year when we regularly meet wasps. They swarm around our picnics and steal bites from our hamburgers and guzzle our milkshakes, sip our sweet mixed drinks whilst we lounge around the pub patio, and construct their elegant papery nest in our attics, eaves or gardening sheds.
Despite their seasonal ubiquity, we know surprisingly little about the daily lives of wasps, of their economic value to the environment and to society, nor their important roles in the ecological niches they fill as both predators and pollinators. But there’s one thing we are clear about with regards to wasps: we don’t like them.
“In stark contrast to bees, wasps are depicted as the gangsters of the insect world; winged thugs; inspiration for horror movies; the ‘sting’ in the tale of thriller novels; conduits of biblical punishment”, writes entomologist Seirian Sumner, a professor of behavioral ecology at University College London, in her debut book Endless Forms: The Secret World Of Wasps (HarperCollins, 2022: Amazon US / Amazon UK). (p. 3)
In this charming but, at times, peculiar, book, Professor Sumner, who has studied the ecology and evolution of sociality in social wasps for more than 20 years, shares her expert insights into wasps’ often surprising secrets and does so with enthusiasm and wit. She introduces you to pioneering wasp researchers — “wasp whisperers” — of the past, noting their unimaginable patience for making painstaking observations, and whose early work built a solid foundation upon which she now builds her own wasp research.
“Wasps are old. Wasps are varied, bizarre and beautiful”, Professor Sumner notes. “There are probably more species of them on this planet than any other insect (or animals, for that matter). Without wasps, we would have no ants or bees. Their evolutionary history is more mysterious and tantalising than a grandmother’s button box to a small child.” (P. 46)
This book presents a detailed study of wasps that is divided into seven ample parts, each comprising a number of chapters that are crammed with fascinating examples of quirky wasp life histories that enrich the topic being discussed, such as wasps’ use of antibiotics to kill fungi that could harm their developing babies, an ancient practice they’ve relied on for more than 68 million years; their powerful sense of smell that is far superior to that of dogs in their ability to sniff out illicit drugs, like cocaine, a variety of explosives, and even dead bodies; and a lengthy and compelling explanation of Hamilton’s Rule and how it explains the evolution (or not) of sociality in wasps. In this book, we also learn that wasps are 100 million years older than bees and that there are ten times more wasp species than bees — and most wasps alive today have yet to be discovered and formally described. We also meet wasps that live their entire lives sealed inside a fig and, astoundingly, wasps that live inside other wasps. Furthermore, we learn that wasps are very useful: as pest controllers; as accidental pollinators of crops; and even in medical science (studying wasp venom helped researchers learn why some patients are so badly affected by Covid-19).
Two sections of color photographs, for a total of 16 pages, are also included. These images show, for example, a Polistes wasp carrying an RFID tag on its back, the tremendous variations in facial patterns in Polistes wasps, a cross-section of mud nests constructed by solitary wasps, a variety of yellowjacket wasp paper nests, some of which resemble abstract art, and of course, some wasps that help people, such as the beautiful jewel wasp, Ampulex compressa, that lays an egg onto a live cockroach she has zombified with her venom, and a wasp pollinating a flower.
I do have one complaint. A rather huge complaint, actually, that can be summed up with just one word: Aristotle. The author includes a lengthy portion of the book (part 5) that features an imagined dinner conversation with Aristotle, a famous misogynist, as a way to juxtapose past research with much-needed future scientific inquiries into the why of wasps. But would Aristotle, a famous misogynist, have listened to anything that Professor Sumner said about anything, or taken it seriously? I seriously doubt this. Further, Aristotle made no secret of his deep dislike of wasps just as he never withheld his negative opinions on women, and this is especially obvious when he dismissed them as having “nothing divine about them”. Wasps, he meant, although I suspect he could have easily said the same things about women.
Although “Dinner with Aristotle” does include interesting and useful information about wasps (most significantly for the book-lovers in the crowd, the invention of paper around 2 millennia ago by a Chinese eunuch who, according to popular myth, was laying under a tree and watching a wasp build cells in her nest from chewed-up bark pulp) but I think this information could have been conveyed to the reader in a different, and in a less irksome way. Although I was enjoying the book, I stopped reading it for almost two months after stumbling into her “Dinner with Aristotle”.
Despite my profound dislike for “Dinner with Aristotle”, I found this book to be readable, absorbing and enlightening, and Professor Sumner’s passion to be infectious. She successfully argues that wasps are sophisticated, socially complex and essential to a healthy functioning environment. She shares a wealth of fascinating information about the evolution, astounding variety and many benefits of wasps with grace and an easy humor. This book will appeal to most readers who are looking for an entertaining and informative summer read, especially gardeners, naturalists and wannabe entomologists, or perhaps whilst lounging on a pub patio, watching the local wasps buzzing around and sipping your sweet mixed drink.
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